Townhead of Cavers 

The Scotsman
Wed 2 Jul 2003


Englishman driven from dream home


AN ENGLISHMAN who provoked worldwide protests from a leading Scottish clan society with his plans to turn an ancient religious site into a luxury house is selling up and moving out of the "dream home" he bought only last year.

Peter Bennett, 54, from Lancashire, has instructed his selling agents to market the Townhead of Cavers estate, near Hawick, for £695,000 after incurring the wrath of Douglas clan members in the United States and Australia as well as the UK.

The US-based clan society mounted an internet "call to arms" after Mr Bennett lodged a planning application for a comprehensive scheme to restore Cavers church and convert it into a private residence.

They even accused him of desecrating graves should his proposals go ahead.

The semi-ruinous kirk, said to be in danger of collapse, was from 1622 onwards the burial ground for generations of Douglases who claimed to be descendants of the Black Douglas, the trusted right-hand man of Robert the Bruce.

Members of the extended Douglas family and descendants of Borderers who emigrated to North America almost 200 years ago continue to make pilgrimages to Cavers to visit the church with its Elliot vault and Douglas cemetery.

However, a spokesman for the Galashiels selling agents, Edwin Thompson, confirmed that Mr Bennett’s offer to hand over the kirk to members of both families had been turned down. Now it is for sale for offers over £25,000 as one of seven Townhead of Cavers lots.

But although Mr Bennett is moving to nearby Bonchester Bridge to resume livestock farming, the conversion may still go ahead. It was confirmed yesterday that Scottish Borders Council planning department has been asked to reactivate the application, which will be considered by an area committee before the end of August. Craig Miller, a senior planning officer, said: "The department was prepared to recommend approval for Mr Bennett in February and we will not be changing our mind when his application comes before the committee."

He said there had been more than 50 objections, many of them sent by e-mail and via the internet from overseas. Most of the protesters are understood to have viewed the future of the building as a dignified ruin, but the council is in favour of finding an alternative use.

Mr Bennett said: "We are not moving willingly from Cavers and the attitude of a minority of people has been a factor.

"This was to have been my swansong, and I was going to be buried here."

He added that letters had been sent to the US clansmen who had issued the so-called call to arms in an effort to set the record straight. But there had not even been an acknowledgement.

He said: "I am not the nasty property developer some people have branded me and the reason for seeking a decision on the planning application is not to add value to the estate.

"But I’m fully aware of the tremendous historical significance of the kirk and the only way to secure its future is to identify a use for it. I have investigated possible funding sources to meet the cost of repair and restoration but all I was offered was £1,000.

"The trouble is the church is in such a dangerous state the roof could collapse if anyone ventures inside."

A spokesman for Edwin Thompson said: "Mr Bennett may decide to retain ownership of the church unless there is a commitment to maintain it.

"There has already been a lot of interest in the estate, although it has only been advertised for a week."

The Douglas family first owned Cavers in 1388, when the estate covered 10,000 acres and included a large number of farms. It was gradually sold off farm by farm until 1975, when the remaining 90 acres were put on the market by James Palmer-Douglas, the head of the "Black Douglas" clan.

Among those who protested at the church plans were Dr Margaret Hellmann, from Colorado, who earlier this year told The Scotsman: "There are no less than 70 different surnames buried at Cavers. They are some of the British Isles’ most illustrious families such as Buchan, Burn, Elliot, Ferguson, Laidlaw, Murray, Rutherford, Scott, Stewart and Turnbull."

THE head of the "Black Douglas" clan, who was forced to sell the Borders estate which had been in his family’s possession for almost 600 years, has joined the fight to preserve an ancient Douglas church and burial ground.

James Palmer-Douglas, 80, moved away from Cavers, near Hawick, in 1975, when the remaining lands of the once vast estates in Roxburghshire were put on the market. Some 10,000 acres came into the hands of his ancestors soon after the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, where the Earl of Douglas was killed in a bloody clash with English forces.


Now Mr Palmer-Douglas, who lives in Caithness, has taken up the pen rather than the sword in a bid to beat off plans by an English farmer who wants to convert Cavers old kirk into a house.

Last week, The Scotsman told how members of Clan Douglas societies in the United States, Canada, South Africa and Australia had expressed strong opposition to Peter Bennett’s proposals for the site where generations of Douglases have been buried since 1622 .

Mr Bennett recently bought the 95-acre Townhead of Cavers estate and says his £250,000 development would safeguard the future of the decaying listed kirk.  But according to Mr Palmer-Douglas, the church and its surroundings should not be touched or altered. He is urging the Borders planning authority to restrict any work to essential repairs and maintenance and to reject the proposal to turn it into a private residence.

"My views on Mr Bennett’s application are coloured by my Christian faith," he said. "I am a Black Douglas, the head of one of four Douglas families that can trace their ancestry back to 1170. That is why I have become so deeply involved in this issue."

The male line of the Douglas dynasty ended in 1878, when Mary Douglas inherited the estates and married Edward Palmer, from Sussex.

When James Palmer-Douglas was born in 1922, the 10,000 acres remained intact. But Cavers was a so-called "entailed" estate, which meant while the owner could look forward to his descendants being masters of the property for the foreseeable future, it was extremely difficult to sell any of the land.

Changes in the law meant it became easier to market parts of entailed estates and by the time Mr Palmer-Douglas inherited, the holding had been reduced to 5,000 acres following sales of farms at Denholm and Spital.

"I went to war at the age of 20 in the Royal Air Force, and when I left the services I was in no mood to go to university to study estate management," said the former laird of Cavers. "The estate continued to be sold farm by farm to pay the bills, and finally I sold the remainder to Patrick Murray in 1975."

However, he says he has never lost his love for the place where both his parents are buried, and describes ground near the west end of the church as a private plot reserved in perpetuity. "The ancient graveyard dates back to the 1600s and has associations for many Borders families."

In his submission to the planners, Mr Palmer-Douglas will claim local roads were built in the days of horse-drawn travel and are totally inadequate to take more traffic. The drainage system is unsatisfactory and the electricity supply has little spare capacity, he will add.

"Mr Bennett also wants to build two other houses at Townhead, but Cavers is no longer a village and it would be wrong to allow any further development there," Mr Palmer-Douglas declared. "New housing would clash terribly with the old properties in the area."

Source: The Scotsman, 25 Feb 2003


View of Cavers House in ruins - click for a larger image
Partially demolished
Cavers House,

At the demolition of Cavers House, the Borders, in 1952, James Palmer Douglas, the 23rd laird told the press; “I tried to sell it – at any price. I advertised it up and down the country, I approached the County Council and the Government. I asked my M.P., I offered it to the National Trust. I suggested it might be an hotel, a holiday home, a school, a hospital, a place for old folk, and I would have let it go for £4,000. They all said that whatever happened it mustn’t be demolished, but nobody would take it. So now it goes for what its insides will fetch as scrap, and I’ll be left with a ruin”.

The final catalyst for demolition was the scarcity of materials that were desperately needed for post-war construction. This made it more commercially viable, in many cases, to demolish the houses than to leave them empty. The result was the large-scale demolition of many architecturally important buildings across Britain, a loss which was “probably as great as that from the destructions following the Dissolution of the Monasteries”. Every possible element of the building was re-used; any fittings which could be removed, and even the rubble whenever possible. At Cavers, they removed and sold 450m² of roofing and 1280m² of flooring. Windows went for £1, a door for 50 shillings, and fireplaces for 5-10 shillings. They also sold mirrors, books, bathroom fittings, stairs, wall paneling, light fittings and switches, central heating pipes and radiators.


How to mean well and give grave offence
(The Telegraph: 09/08/2003)

When Lancashire farmer Peter Bennett bought a remote smallholding in the Scottish Borders, he hoped to provide a place of peaceful, Christian retreat. Instead, he sparked a holy war. Hamish Scott reports

The past is sometimes best left undisturbed, as Victorian ghost-story writers knew well. The new squire, who was invariably rational and down-to-earth, had only to lop some ancient yew or displace a druidic stone on his estate to unleash spine-chilling horrors. Within a night, his modern gas-lit world would be disturbed by some primeval thing scratching at his study door or tapping with a bony finger at his window. In such Christmas Eve fireside tales, the spirit world functions as a kind of conservation agency that has effective methods of frustrating the impertinent developer.

Cavers church
The ruined church at Cavers: founded by followers of St Columba, according to legend

Today, earth spirits seem to have relinquished this part of their job to council planning officers and curses have given way to preservation orders, although the rules involved may still remain as incomprehensible as runes. Conservation is, however, a matter that is based far more on emotion than on reason and some hint of the older system can still bubble to the surface. There are parts of modern Britain where history and architecture are intertwined with questions of identity and myth. Such places appeal greatly to romantic sensibilities. But outsiders who buy into such dreams must tread with care, for their plans may stir up forces they could never have foreseen.

Just over a year ago, Peter Bennett, a Lancashire farmer, was surfing on the internet when he came across a property for sale in the Scottish Borders. Townhead of Cavers appeared to be exactly what he and his wife, Sally, needed to fulfil their dream - one, it must be said, that was a touch unusual. As committed Christians, they were looking for some special place, in peaceful, remote countryside, where, in Mr Bennett's words, "knackered vicars could be sent by their parishioners to replenish their batteries".

Cavers seemed ideally suited to this brief. The property consisted of a rambling house, converted from old stables, surrounded by some 90 acres of parkland and woods that provided absolute seclusion. And, aside from a pair of cottages, there was an ancient, ruined church that could be renovated to provide additional accommodation. "I was astounded when we came up here and saw it," Mr Bennett says. "The silence was almost overpowering."

It would be hard to imagine a more suitable retreat. Within a fortnight of their visit, the offer that they made had been accepted. But, as they soon discovered, the Bennetts had bought rather more than they had bargained for.

Although Cavers is now little more than a smallholding, it was once the heart of a huge, historically significant estate. From the 14th century, it was a stronghold of the Black Douglas clan, one of the most powerful and ferocious of all the Borders families. But the church is older still. Local legend claims that it was founded by followers of St Columba 1,400 years ago. Parts of the present structure are certainly medieval, despite a date-stone reading 1662. And generations of Black Douglases are buried there, in a sealed vault beneath the aisle. The family has lost their lands and their nearby castle is in ruins - but the shade of their presence still hovers over Cavers.

Trouble started from the moment the Bennetts submitted plans for the restoration and conversion of the church. The planning officers were sympathetic, since the building had not functioned as a church since 1822 and has been derelict for more than 30 years. But some local residents were outraged, as were members of the Douglas family.

A "Call to Arms" was issued on the internet and the cause was taken up by the Clan Douglas Society of North America. There was talk of sacrilege and desecration and comparisons were made with pillaging by English reivers in the 16th century. In a mysterious, nocturnal raid, unknown opponents of the scheme sealed off all access to the Douglas vault. One message on the clan website suggests, almost plaintively, that "there must surely be some curse" that might prove useful to the cause, as though necromancy still remained a valid method of dealing with the auld enemy.

It is not pleasant to become the target of such international wrath and the Bennetts are a mild-mannered couple who have no appetite for fights. Bewildered by the controversy, they have bought a stock farm a few miles down the road, where they are looking forward to a rather more obscure and down-to-earth existence.

But the row over Cavers will not end with their departure. The property is being sold in up to seven lots. The house, cottages, building plots and farmland are all, understandably, attracting interest from potential buyers. But it is the smallest, cheapest and most problematic of these lots that engages the imagination of everyone who comes to visit. The passions that Old Cavers Church has aroused seem only to add to its appeal.

It is certainly an astounding place, as Mr Bennett recognised the moment he first saw it. Almost smothered in encroaching woodland, the ancient structure has a secretive mystique, like some shrine that has been hidden and forgotten through the years. Peering through a lepers' window, the outline of a tomb emerges from the gloom and I could hear a strange rustling that was probably just bats.

Behind the building, graveyard yews have assumed contorted, almost animated shapes and one aged tree has even wrapped a mossy arm around a toppling obelisk, as though about to carry it away. With dusk approaching, the silence was palpably intense and the hairs on my neck began to tingle in response. Despite the solitude, I had a feeling I was not alone. I almost jumped out my skin when Mr Bennett stepped from behind a grave.

"Another winter and the roof will go. Then the lintels will collapse. It has stood here for 800 years, but unless work starts soon, there is going to be nothing left to save," he said. There was sadness in his voice as he explained how his plans had been so unexpectedly frustrated. He insists that he has never been a property developer out for a quick profit. "A building has to have a purpose. That's the only way it can survive. No one's going to pay to conserve it as a ruin. Once it is unsafe, it will have to be bulldozed."

The thought of this is shocking. But, equally, it does seem rather inappropriate to transform such a strange and special place into a 21st-century home. Aside from other problems, the Douglas vault would have to be preserved behind the bedroom wall. The neighbours should at least be very quiet, or so you would hope, but all the same you would not want them dropping in for tea.

This is a conversion that demands huge determination and considerable skill but definitely not too much imagination. As we left the brooding ruin to the silence of the trees, I glanced back over my shoulder. I could have sworn I heard that rustling noise following along the path.

• Townhead of Cavers, near Hawick, is for sale as a whole at offers over £695,000. Alternatively, Cavers Old Church can be purchased as one of seven lots, priced at offers over £25,000. All bids must be in by August 15. Contact Edwin Thompson, chartered surveyors (01896 751300).

See also:


B.  Douglas of Cavers

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